Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Riding the High Waves

This month marks the completion of 21 years for me in the technology industry. What a wonderful ride it has been! I cannot think of any other industry that has gone through so many changes and innovation in the last two decades. 

The Brain Drain: In 1990, Indian-Americans were the 14th largest migrant population and numbered less than half-a-million and have grown to be the 2nd largest migrant population in the US. A large population has moved to US for post-secondary education making Indian-Americans the best educated minority group in US. Studies say that 1.6 million US citizens and permanent residents were Indian citizens at the time of birth. I am one of many who contributed to this statistic along with many of my peers and classmates from college  I was there when this happened...
I moved to US for my graduate studies and graduated during a recession post the first Gulf war. I was hired by one of the big computer companies out of college and was very thrilled to have landed a job. All my friends and classmates were also able to get a job even with the recession.
Little did I realize then it was the beginning of an era – an era of large population migration of computer engineers to the US, an era when the computer sales surged and the era of the internet – although internet was used earlier by the military and education institutions, it was suddenly made big by the business community 

The Dot Com Stock Market Boom: In the nineties, the usage of internet became more prevalent than ever. The period was marked by the founding of new Internet companies commonly referred to as dot coms. A combination of increasing stock prices, market confidence and available venture capital created this boom. Many startups were popping up everywhere and many companies were going public. Some of us, who didn’t know much about investing, became stars in the stock market. You invested in the stock market, you made money. Home prices surged in predominantly hi-tech areas (such as the Bay Area and Austin, etc.), the US economy grew and so did our salaries.  It was a great time for computer engineers with a very healthy job market, healthy paychecks  I was there again.

CPU Changes: Having been enamored by CPU architecture in college, I eagerly joined IBM's CPU design team. Along with the internet boom came the surge in sales of computers (desktops, servers, laptops) which changed the market for CPUs.
Compaq, DELL chose to build IBM PCs in the late eighties which made the already strong Win-Tel (Windows/MSFT-Intel) more stronger. To compete against Intel, Apple, IBM and Motorola (AIM)  formed a consortium in 1991 and the birth of PowerPC. This started the war of RISC versus the CISC. Originally intended for PCs, PowerPC CPUs have since become popular as embedded and high-performance processors.

In the server space, IBM dominated with their RISC for high end CPUs, which competed against the Alpha processors from DEC and PA-RISC from HP. HP partnered with Intel in 1994 to develop the IA-64 architecture. Industry analysts predicted that IA-64 would dominate in servers, workstations, and high-end desktops. Two decades later, the IA-64 has not met the expectations of the analysts.  

In 1990s and early 2000s, frequency was considered synonymous to performance. In 2000, AMD beat Intel to 1GHz mark. Intel had been a dominant leader of high performing CPUs and Intel stock went down. IBM was working on Power4 – a CPU for servers, internally code named GP (Giga Processor) which released in 2001. Power4 was the first processor with multiple cores in a single package and the war for the number of cores packed in a single package is still on going even after a decade.

Processors simply couldn’t push for frequency without managing the power consumption. A new metric for measuring performance was established – the power performance. Power performance measures the performance for a given Power consumption. With smart phones and tablets taking over the market,  power consumption is becoming more relevant than ever.

While working for three large computer companies, I am proud to say that I was there again and in the trenches – through the RISC versus CISC war, through the frequency war, through the power performance war and through the multi-core war.

Dot Com Bust: Late 1999 and early 2000 had multiple increases in interest rate and the US economy began to lose speed. The stock market crash of 2000–2002 caused the loss of $5 trillion. Many dot coms ran out of capital and were acquired or liquidated.  Sadly, many companies misreported finances and/or misused shareholders' money and their executives were rightly convicted of fraud. Enjoying the success of investing in the early nineties, many people continued to heavily invest in technology stocks. Many of them took a huge loss during the bust  I was there again but I wish I wasn't...

The India IT industry growth: Starting at around the same time, the Emerging Markets was going through a boom. In early 2000s, about 35,000 Indians returned to India from the United States. Being closer to family, the prospect of job opportunities and exposing our kids to Indian culture was very appealing. My family decided to move to Bangalore – the IT hub of India. Many companies were expanding to India and I was able to take a transfer through my company. There was even an article about my family moving to India in a US Newspaper. Again, we saw the housing prices go up in Bangalore, IT salaries increase and the number of jobs increase in services, software and hardware product companies.
My own CPU world also expanded with Intel, ARM, AMD, and IBM having set up shop in India. It was not easy to start a CPU team in India and after some failures, Intel released a couple of CPUs which were designed and validated in India and I am proud to say I was there again.

I am excited to be part of this generation who has ridden the high wave not once but twice. Many of us have seen good financial and career success during these years. But what I would like to measure our generation is the legacy we leave behind. What are the technological, cultural, educational values we are leaving behind for the upcoming next generation of engineers? We still have time to do something about it.

I also wonder what wave I am going to be riding in the next twenty years. A dream where there are  pervasive computers, wearable computers, technology in medical areas solving the world's problems, visualization such as 3D, virtual reality, big data problems solved with innovative networking and storage solutions, semi-conductor fabs and market growth in India, content easily ported across all platforms and forms, computers in homes across the world and information revolution, growth of women in technology... And being able to say to my grandkids that I was there too.

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